Nazaré is the ending point of the massive Nazaré underwater canyon, the largest of its kind in Europe and one of the largest in the world. This ancient formation funnels the energy of sleeping giants from far out to sea to just a few metres off the beach without costing them too much speed or power, which then combines with waves from the continental shelf and coastal currents to form the largest waves in the world. This has been a constant fear for the historic fishing community, but since 2010 has given the village new life in the form of surf.
Majendie was on a family holiday when he was introduced to this world, he was staying on the grounds of the Portuguese home of a couple whose son happened to be Nic von Rupp, Portugal’s star big wave surfer. The two met, and through him, Matt Majendie met the four other protagonists of his book: Englishman Andrew Cotton, Brazilian Maya Gabeira, German Sebastian Steudtner, and the Portuguese jet ski driver Sérgio Cosme.
Welcomed into the community
He became heavily inspired by these athletes and wished to document their stories. He had never written a book before, but took on the challenge, just as these people had done with their own goals. “For the 2021/2022 season, I had the good fortune to be one [a spectator],” he wrote, “welcomed into that community, driven out on a jet ski into the big waves, allowed into their homes and often wined and dined by them – to try and understand what makes them all tick.”
He spent a couple of days, usually, in Nazaré at a time, although at times the stays would be much longer. Majendie would spend some time in Portugal, then go back to the UK and wait for the next swell to be forecast. When the waves were big, he’d fly out and follow the surfers along as they prepared and executed their surfs. These days were usually chaotic, with all the athletes focused on their own work, as they need to be - the waves of Nazaré are dangerous, after all. Sometimes, a swell would be forecast and Majendie would fly out to Portugal, only to be disappointed with a rather calm day. He still made the most of this, though, as the settled waves meant many surfers had the free time to sit down with him to talk. In a way, these days were also important for the book.
“The biggest hurdle for me was probably the Covid-19 tests I had to do,” the author told The Portugal News, adding light-heartedly that “the Portuguese are rough with the swabs.” During the time he spent travelling to and from Portugal, the country went through various extents of Covid-19 control measures, with mandatory testing for international arrivals being a mainstay during most of the period. Majendie concluded, “Really, the biggest hurdle was logistics.”
Forces of nature
The story was of course different for the surfers themselves. The forces of Nature are not to be underestimated, especially in an environment as extreme as Nazaré, where one wouldn’t find it particularly difficult to reach the underwater canyon from the beach. As Matt Majendie put it in his book: “The antics performed in the waves by the surfers are both inspiring and addictive, watching people do something seemingly impossible day after day, often with what looks like remarkable ease. But always in the back of my mind was that nagging sensation that things could go horribly wrong at any given moment. Surfing waves up to and over 80 feet is understandably precarious, and lives have been lost at big-wave surfing spots around the globe. (…) All season long, I had a perpetual fear of such a fate befalling those who took to the waters but especially the main characters of this book.”
The journalist wouldn’t make it through the season without coming close to an incident like this. “There was a time Nic got pummelled by a wave and hit the rocks,” he revealed. “I’d say he had about a 10% chance of survival. If there had been another wave, he would’ve been sent into the cave.”
So far there has only been one surfing-related death at Nazaré. In January of this year, 47-year-old Márcio Freire, a Brazilian well-known for his surfing skill, including having starred in his own documentary, filmed in Hawaii, was caught under a wave in Nazaré, one from which he wasn’t saved in time.
Despite the dangers, many are drawn to Nazaré, as surfers or as spectators. Day after day people still come to the beach to test themselves to the limit on one of the most perilous portions of the coast in the world.
Safety is something that’s constantly being worked on, here and in the general big-wave surfing world. The goal is to make the sport as safe as humanly possible, so as to avoid tragedies like this from happening again.
Matt Majendie spent a long time over a whole surf season getting to know these athletes who face untameable waves and work in harmony with them. Their stories are inspiring, and through them Majendie grew a love for the sport, even writing a book about the experience of these people in pursuit of their passion. “Surf has a great, tight-knit community,” he summarised, “It’s quite special watching someone do something you absolutely can’t, it’s like trying to follow superheroes around.”
Nazaré: Life and Death with the Big Wave Surfer by Matt Majendie is available to buy online.
Star in the 2015 music video for the hit single “Headlights” by German musician, DJ and record producer Robin Schulz featuring American singer-songwriter Ilsey. Also a journalist.